The House by the Church-Yard, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 62

Of a Solemn Resolution which Captain Devereux Registered Among His Household Gods, with a Libation.

When Devereux entered his drawing-room, and lighted his candles, he was in a black and bitter mood. He stood at the window for a while, and drummed on the pane, looking in the direction of the barrack, where all the fun was going on, but thinking, in a chaotic way, of things very different, and all toned with that strange sense of self-reproach and foreboding which, of late, had grown habitual with him — and not without just cause.

‘This shall be the last. ’Twas dreadful, seeing that poor Nan; and I want it — I can swear, I really and honestly want it — only one glass to stay my heart. Everyone may drink in moderation — especially if he’s heart-sick, and has no other comfort — one glass and no more — curse it.’

So one glass of brandy — I’m sorry to say, unmixed with water — the handsome misanthropist sipped and sipped, to the last drop; and then sat down before his fire, and struck, and poked, and stabbed at it in a bitter, personal sort of way, until here and there some blazes leaped up, and gave his eyes a dreamy sort of occupation; and he sat back, with his hands in his pockets, and his feet on the fender, gazing among the Plutonic peaks and caverns between the bars.

‘I’ve had my allowance for to-night; tomorrow night, none at all. ’Tis an accursed habit: and I’ll not allow it to creep upon me. No, I’ve never fought it fairly, as I mean to do now —’tis quite easy, if one has but the will to do it.’

So he sat before his fire, chewing the cud of bitter fancy only; and he recollected he had not quite filled his glass, and up he got with a swagger, and says he —

‘We’ll drink fair, if you please — one glass — one only — but that, hang it — a bumper.’

So he made a rough calculation.

‘We’ll say so much — here or there, ’tis no great matter. A thimble full won’t drown me. Pshaw! that’s too much. What am I to do with it? — hang it. Well, we can’t help it —’tis the last.’

So whatever the quantity may have been, he drank it too, and grew more moody; and was suddenly called up from the black abyss by the entrance of little Puddock, rosy and triumphant, from the ball.

‘Ha! Puddock! Then, the fun’s over. I’m glad to see you. I’ve been tête-à-tête with my shadow — cursed bad company, Puddock. Where’s Cluffe?’

‘Gone home, I believe.’

‘So much the better. You know Cluffe better than I, and there’s a secret about him I never could find out. You have, maybe?’

‘What’s that?’ lisped Puddock.

‘What the deuce Cluffe’s good for.’

‘Oh! tut! We all know Cluffe’s a very good fellow.’

Devereux looked from under his finely pencilled brows with a sad sort of smile at good little Puddock.

‘Puddock,’ says he, ‘I’d like to have you write my epitaph.

Puddock looked at him with his round eyes a little puzzled, and then he said —

‘You think, maybe, I’ve a turn for making verses; and you think also I like you, and there you’re quite right.’

Devereux laughed, but kindly, and shook the fat little hand he proffered.

‘I wish I were like you, Puddock. We’ve the knowledge of good and evil between us. The knowledge of good is all yours: you see nothing but the good that men have; you see it — and, I dare say, truly — where I can’t. The darker knowledge is mine.’

Puddock, who thought he thoroughly understood King John, Shylock, and Richard III., was a good deal taken aback by Devereux’s estimate of his penetration.

‘Well, I don’t think you know me, Devereux,’ resumed he with a thoughtful lisp. ‘I’m much mistaken, or I could sound the depths of a villain’s soul as well as most men.’

‘And if you did you’d find it full of noble qualities,’ said Dick Devereux. ‘What book is that?’

‘The tragical history of Doctor Faustus,’ answered Puddock. ‘I left it here more than a week ago. Have you read it?’

‘Faith, Puddock, I forgot it! Let’s see what ’tis like,’ said Devereux. ‘Hey day!’ And he read —

‘Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare Into that vast perpetual torture-house; There are the furies tossing damned souls On burning forks; their bodies boil in lead; There are live quarters broiling on the coals That ne’er can die; this ever-burning chair Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in; These that are fed with sops of flaming fire Were gluttons, and loved only delicates, And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates.

‘Tailors! by Jupiter! Serve’em right, the rogues. Tailors lining upon ragou royal, Spanish olea, Puddock — fat livers, and green morels in the Phoenix, the scoundrels, and laughing to see poor gentlemen of the Royal Irish Artillery starving at their gates — hang ’em.’

‘Well! well! Listen to the Good Angel,’ said Puddock, taking up the book and declaiming his best —

‘O thou hast lost celestial happiness, Pleasures unspeakable, bliss without end. Hadst thou affected sweet divinity, Hell or the devil had no power on thee — Hadst thou kept on that way. Faustus, behold In what resplendent glory thou hadst sat, On yonder throne, like those bright shining spirits, And triumphed over hell! That hast thou lost; And now, poor soul, must thy good angel leave thee; The jaws of hell are open to receive thee.’

‘Stop that; ’tis all cursed rant,’ said Devereux. ‘That is, the thing itself; you make the most it.’

‘Why, truly,’ said Puddock, ‘there are better speeches in it. But ’tis very late; and parade, you know — I shall go to bed. And you —’

‘No. I shall stay where I am.’

‘Well, I wish you good-night, dear Devereux.’

‘Good-night, Puddock’

And the plump little fellow was heard skipping down stairs, and the hall-door shut behind him. Devereux took the play that Puddock had just laid down, and read for a while with a dreary kind of interest. Then he got up, and, I’m sorry to say, drank another glass of the same strong waters.

‘To-morrow I turn over a new leaf;’ and he caught himself repeating Puddock’s snatch of Macbeth, ‘To-morrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.’

Devereux looked out, leaning on the window-sash. All was quiet now, as if the rattle of a carriage had never disturbed the serene cold night. The town had gone to bed, and you could hear the sigh of the river across the field. A sadder face the moon did not shine upon.

‘That’s a fine play, Faustus — Marlowe,’ he said. Some of the lines he had read were booming funereally in his ear like a far-off bell. ‘I wonder whether Marlowe had run a wild course, like some of us here — myself — and could not retrieve. That honest little mountebank, Puddock, does not understand a word of it. I wish I were like Puddock. Poor little fellow!’

So, after awhile, Devereux returned to his chair before the fire, and on his way again drank of the waters of Lethe, and sat down, not forgetting, but remorseful, over the fire.

‘I’ll drink no more to-night — there — curse me if I do.’

The fire was waxing low in the grate. ‘To-morrow’s a new day. Why, I never made a resolution about it before. I can keep it. ’Tis easily kept. To-morrow I begin.’

And with fists clenched in his pockets, he vowed his vow, with an oath into the fire; and ten minutes were not past and over when his eye wandered thirstily again to the flask on the middle of the table, and with a sardonic, flushed smile, he quoted the ‘Good Angel’s’ words:—

‘O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside, And gaze not on it lest it tempt thy soul.’

And then pouring out a dram, he looked on it, and said, with the ‘Evil Angel’—

‘Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art, Wherein all Nature’s treasure is contained: Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky, Lord and commander of the elements.’

And then, with a solitary sneer, he sipped it. And after awhile he drank one glass more — they were the small glasses then in vogue — and shoved it back, with —

‘There; that’s the last.’

And then, perhaps, there was one other ‘last;’ and after that ‘the very last.’ Hang it! it must be the last, and so on, I suppose. And Devereux was pale, and looked wild and sulky on parade next morning.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49